Signs And Portents
Sunday, 22 December 2019 22:55
Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, ‘Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.’ (Isaiah 7:10)
According to Bishop James Ussher, Primate of All Ireland, in 1654, God created the world at about 6 o’clock in the evening on the 22nd October 4004 BC, which must have been a bit of a shock to the Yangshao people of China and the neolithic tribes of Europe who were around at the time. What Ussher had done was to look back through the Bible picking up in little hints as to when certain people had lived, how long their lives were. He’d looked for signs in scripture that he could link to known historical dates that would let him work backward and establish when God carried out this mighty feat of Creation. Science tells us that he was a little out - some 4 billion years out.
He wasn’t the first - and probably won’t be the last - to use the Bible in this way: to scour it for signs and portents that they can match up with what’s going on in the world to try to perceive God’s hand at work in the world. Early Christians did it. Matthew, for example, did it a lot. In our reading this morning he finds in the words of our reading from Isaiah a sign, a portent, for the birth of Jesus, even if he has to paraphrase it by exchanging the word ‘virgin’ for ‘young woman’. He would do it again later in the passage dealing with the coming of the Magi when he would quote from the prophecy of Micah regarding the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem; again changing the words a little bit.
It still goes on today. Every so often you get an author - rarely a theologian - venturing into print to predict the return of Christ on a particular date after scouring the scriptures looking for signs and portents that he can link to what’s going on in the world and saying, Look! This or that prophecy or passage from Revelation really matches up with the election of Trump, or forest fires in California or whatever. I can’t say I’m awfully convinced.
But God knows we like our signs and our portents. That’s probably why, through Isaiah, he told King Ahaz to ask a sign from him. Ahaz was king of Judah when the Assyrians were bearing down on the Northern Kingdom of Israel and his fellow Jews were asking him to form a coalition to resist them. Isaiah advised him to trust in God and to do that. Ahaz, however, lacked the faith - the trust in God to do that and would, instead, seek the protection of the Assyrians when he stood aside and did nothing as they invaded the Northern Kingdom.
I wonder, sometimes, if our tendency to want to look for signs and portents that God is at work in the world involves a similar lack of trust. If it does, it’s not surprising. In a world that seems to be in a state of constant conflict it’s tempting to want to scour the scriptures for signs and portents that the Prince of Peace is at work in the world. In a world where billionaires live in luxury in cities where homeless people huddle in doorways it’s tempting to want to scour the scriptures for signs and portents that the Christ who told of Dives and Lazarus is at work in the world. In a world where politicians pursue power with a hunger that leads them to lay aside any obligation to the truth it’s tempting to want to scour the scriptures for signs and portents that the Messiah that was born a powerless child is at work in the world.
It’s tempting, perhaps, to want the kind of explanation and sign that Joseph got when he discovered his fiancée was pregnant - an actual angel appearing to him in a dream and telling him that everything was going to be OK. Thing is, that doesn’t happen very often.
Most times it really doesn’t matter that we look for signs and portents to tell us that God is at work in the world. God knows we do that - that’s why he offered one to Ahaz. Unless we use them to hurt folk or to insist that we - and we alone - have it right and that we understand how God is at work in the world. When Christians see in the death of a gay vicar a sign of God’s vengeance on homosexuals and write to tell his partner that he is burning in Hell, then forgive me if I think that lacks the grace and humility that should characterise the Christian life. When high-profile pastors in America insist that forest fires that engulf communities, or virulent diseases that infect children in their mothers’ wombs are signs of God at work in the world, then forgive me if I think they have God all wrong.
For this is the fourth Sunday in Advent. This is the Sunday when Christmas is so close we can almost smell it. This is the Sunday when we are in touching distance of celebrating the coming of Christ - an event that Matthew found signs and portents for in the prophecies of Isaiah and Micah but only with 20:20 hindsight. No one - but no one - expected a Messiah born into poverty. No one - but no one - expected a Messiah nailed to a Roman cross. No one - but no one - expected a Messiah who would be embraced by the Gentiles.
So maybe we shouldn’t be beguiled by signs and portents. Maybe we should approach the manger of Galilee with a willingness to be surprised by the way God works in the world. Maybe we should approach the manger of Galilee like the shepherds who must have thought themselves the last people who would witness the outworking of Isaiah’s prophecy. Maybe we should approach the manger of Galilee remembering the words of Paul in his letter to the Romans: that we are God’s beloved children and are called to be saints.
The thing is, if you want to signs and portents of God at work in the world, don’t look at the headlines in the papers or the deeds of powerful people who strut the world’s stage - that’s not the way God came into the world in Christ. Look, instead, for quiet acts of generosity and kindness. Look for that person who buys every edition of the Big Issue because she knows it’s giving a homeless person an income. Look for that person who is always there when someone needs a shoulder to lean on because they are hurting. Look for that person who is always there - sometimes in the background - when folk who need to be looked after and cared for get looked after and cared for.
Whether they know it or not - whether they share our faith or not - they are signs of portents of God at work in the world. And sometimes they are us. As we prepare ourselves to make our last steps in our journey to meet the newborn Christ at Bethlehem - something no one had recognised the signs and portents for - maybe the message is this: we don’t need signs and portents. Maybe all we need is trust that God is at work in the world and that he can work through each and every one of us. Maybe not in world-changing events like the fall of the Northern Kingdom or the coming of Christ, but where and when it matters to the people we meet. Maybe by something as simple as loving our neighbour as we love ourselves we reveal ourselves as saints; as signs and portents of the work of God in the world
Lord, may we be signs of your Kingdom: a Kingdom where all can belong, where all matter, where all are loved. May we live as followers of your Son
Preached at Gretna: St Andrew's